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Ava DuVernay on ‘Rebel and Radical’ New Film ‘Origin’ and ‘Hollywood’s Caste System’



“We were told, ‘You probably shouldn’t do that.’ ‘That’s not going to work.’ But we did it anyway.”

Ava DuVernay is smiling, but there’s a steeliness to her words. The director, writer, and producer is no stranger to carving her path. With “Origin,” her latest film, she was forced to dig in a little deeper.

An adaptation of the bestseller “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson makes the case it is not race but the structures of caste that best explain social inequality. Using the United States, India, and Nazi Germany as examples, “Caste” was a non-fiction sensation when it was released in 2020, namechecked by Barack Obama, temporarily banned by a library in Texas, and the source of fierce debate. But you’d be hard-pushed to say the 500-page work of social anthropology had “film” written all over it.

And yet for DuVernay, the appeal was obvious. Her filmography has sought to reckon with the history and present realities of American inequality, injustice, and oppression (see: “Selma,” “The 13th,” “When They See Us”). To do so, DuVernay has flitted between documentary and narrative fiction as she saw fit.

Her latest film represents the confluence of her talents, blending historical re-enactments, narrative fiction, and surreal imagery in a roving journey through the mind of Wilkerson as she forms her thesis. DuVernary has bent the medium of cinema to realize “Origin,” and may have collected a few naysays perturbed by her narrative invention, but for others it’s a thrilling piece of hybrid filmmaking, breaking late into the awards season picture.

DuVernay’s cast is clearly in awe.

“I thought it was the most beautiful piece of work she has ever done,” said newly-minted Emmy winner Niecy Nash-Betts, a long-time collaborator who plays Wilkerson’s cousin Marion.

“I didn’t think there was any path in the world to take that book and make it into a movie,” said Jon Bernthal, who plays Brett, Wilkerson’s husband. “I’m so blown away by not only how she did it, but the fact that she did it in such a singular way, and in such a lonely way. She raised the money herself. She built that film herself – it’s a Herculean effort.”

“Origin” began life at Netflix before DuVernay split and pivoted to independent financing (the film is distributed in the US by Neon).

“It was made in 37 days on three continents by two Black independent producers and no studio,” DuVernay told CNN. “It has a cast of actors in it who would not be the kind of cast that a studio executive would sign off on. It’s rebellious and radical in a lot of ways, separate and apart from the content itself, and that is because it doesn’t fit into the caste system of Hollywood.”

Carrying the film is Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson. An Oscar nominee for “King Richard,” the actor cited the all-too-familiar image of white male genius on screen.

“I’ve seen it done. But I wanted to see someone that looks like me doing it,” she said. “Our thoughts and ideas can be the beginnings of a movement and the beginnings of a language, and that’s what’s portrayed here.”

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